Thursday, November 30, 2006

New Development in the Fight Against Blackboard

Blackboard's dominance of the academic market seems ready to take another hit. After EDUCAUSE fired off their public letter of complaint against Blackboard's software patent, apparently, others took it as a sign to take legal action.

Cnet's has a new report on this hot-button issue in higher ed:

The Software Freedom Law Center said Thursday that it has asked the U.S. Patent Office to re-examine a patent awarded to education software company Blackboard. It claims that the patent is bogus and could undermine three open-source education software projects it represents--Sakai, Moodle and ATutor. The patent, No. 6,988,138, is titled "Internet-based education support system and methods" and relates to a central feature of Blackboard's software: The ability to grant different people, such as students and teachers, different access rights to online resources such as grades, files or quizzes.

"It's a junk patent that should never have been given by the Patent Office," said Richard Fontana, a patent attorney with the Software Freedom Law Center. And the patent's claims could have an impact on the three projects, he said: "They do effectively cover just about any e-learning software that is currently in use."

Apparently, after Blackboard stalled and stonewalled and refused to budge, it seems possible that the patent will be stripped from them after all.

You can read the rest of the post here.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Interview with Gerald Graff

Michael Roy, of posted an interview with Gerald Graff that is worth a look.

For those who aren't familiar with Graff, he's been a major figure in the field of Rhetoric since the '70s--and is one of the founding fathers (so to speak) of Reader-Response theory.

Gerald Graff is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His recent work has centered on how for most students and members of the general population, academia in general and literary studies in particular are obscure and opaque, a theme taken up in his CLUELESS IN ACADEME: HOW SCHOOLING OBSCURES THE LIFE OF THE MIND (Yale University Press, April 2003).

AcademicCommons: Much has been made of the neo-Millenials (also known as the Net Generation) who are presently enrolled on our campuses, and how they learn differently than past generations. Do you see this description as accurate or useful when thinking about how educators need to change their teaching strategies?
Graff:I have always been skeptical of claims about learning differences between generations. Formerly, it was the ‘60s that purportedly made the adolescent mind non-linear, more visual, and so forth. Now pixels and megabytes supposedly produce a new kind of non-linear consciousness, or one wired into simultaneity, or whatever.

How is technology helping higher education?
Probably only in rather narrowly technical ways, so far, e.g. making registration processes more efficient. Communication across campus has been made much easier, but this benefit may have been negated by the overload problem: we now get information much more readily, but it comes in such excessive volume that the chances of our recognizing the information that is really relevant and useful to us are correspondingly lessened.

How is technology hurting higher education?
Aside from the overload problem just mentioned, I think there has been a failure to recognize and exploit the potential that technology offers for improving and transforming day-to-day instruction.

Let me give one example.

I have long thought that there is something infantilizing about the standard classroom situation, where the very face-to-face intimacy that is so valued actually encourages sloppy and imprecise habits of communication. That is, the intimate classroom is very different from--and therefore poor training for--the most powerful kinds of real-world communication, where we are constantly trying to reach and influence audiences we do not know and will probably never meet. We should be using online technologies to go beyond the cozy pseudo-intimacy of the classroom, to put students in situations that force them to communicate at a distance and therefore learn the more demanding rhetorical habits of constructing and reaching an anonymous audience. We have begun to do this to some extent, but our habit of idealizing presence and "being there," the face-to-face encounter between teachers and students, blinds us to the educational advantages of the very impersonality and distancing of online communication. Indeed, online communication makes it possible for schools and colleges to create real intellectual communities rather than the fragmented and disconnected simulation of such communities that "the classroom" produces.

Can you point to examples of such communities?
I meant possible intellectual communities rather than actually existing ones. I do not know any campus in America that has what I would call a real intellectual community, online or otherwise, in the sense of everyone--or almost everyone--on campus engaged in a continuous conversation about ideas all the time (as occurred for a brief time during the campus protest era in the ‘60s and early ‘70s). I think online technology makes something like such a community of discussion possible even without a crisis like the Vietnam War, but I do not know of any campus that has come close to creating such a potential community. Of course there may be many things going on that I do not know about.

How do you use technology in your own teaching?
I love using e-mail for writing instruction. I can get right inside my students' sentences and paragraphs, stop them and ask them "can you see a problem with this phrase?" or "can you think of an alternative to this formulation?" or "please improve on this sentence," with an immediacy and turn-around speed that handing papers back with comments cannot begin to match.

I have also used class listservs, which seem to me to have great potential.The big benefit for me is the creation of a common space of class discussion that everyone can (and in my case must) contribute to, a space that prolongs the in-class discussion and enables us to pursue issues that had gotten short shrift in class. I wish these listserv discussions were more controlled and focused than they have been in my classes, and I think they can be when and if I learn better how to structure them.

One interesting thing I have learned from listservs is that most students see electronic communication as an extension of informal oral discourse, whereas I see it (when used in a class anyway) as properly an extension of formal writing. When I chastised one class for writing sloppy, prolix, and often unreadable blather on the class listserv, they objected that I was trying to shut down the liberating spontaneity and informality that is inherent in electronic media. I think this was a rationalization, but one that has to be anticipated.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Wikipedia's Stubborn Refusal to be as BAD as Many Academics Fear

I just saw this on The Wired Campus, and thought it was a perfect follow-up to my Wikipedia assignment:

Several scholars have taken stabs at assessing the credibility of Wikipedia, the open-source encyclopedia that seems to harbor more errors in theory than it does in practice (The Chronicle, October 27). And most of those experts -- including, most famously, the editors of Nature -- have come back with at least guarded praise of the site.

You can read the full post about Wikipedia's stubborn refusal to be as BAD as many academics fear here.


A Good End-of-the-Semester Assignment

We're closing in on the end of the semester, and the stress levels are up for everyone (faculty, students, staff, our respective family members who have to live with us at this time...).

As we're all facing the year-end blitz, I wanted to share an assignment that my fellow professors are welcome to use.

Recently, I took my own advice and assigned a "Class Editing Project" to my students. We tackled Wikipedia.

We started off the class by making a list of all the subjects/niches/etc. in which we felt we were "experts." I allowed 10 minutes to write down everything--and I made it clear that anything counted ("Are you one of those people who can list off baseball stats from thirty years ago? Do you know every detail of your favorite author's life and work? Are you a pro at Photoshop? Are you godly at Warcraft?").

At first, they looked frightened, or embarrassed. However, once they started listing their talents, they warmed up to it. (I think some of them didn't realize how much they actually knew, until they started listing the subjects/topics.)

Then we hit the computers. We went to Wikipedia, and I showed them the basics via the SmartBoard (walked them through things, while I contributed to an article). Once they saw how easy it was for "anyone" to edit Wikipedia...well...those who didn't understand why I wouldn't allow it as a scholarly source for a recent paper assignment had that "Oh! Now I get it!" look. I think Wikipedia is a great resource (obviously), but it's just not 100% accurate, 100% of the time--though it's certainly not the virtual train wreck some claim.

Next, those who didn't already have Wiki accounts signed up--and everyone sent me their usernames (which allowed me to track/grade their contributions).

I gave them the next 20 minutes or so to just read articles in their areas of expertise. When they saw an article that was lacking something--whether it was an issue with the article's content, an external link that would be a good addition, or a reference that ought to be included--they were to add it to their watchlist.

Once they had at least 3 articles in need of revision (the minimum number of contributions for the assignment), they were welcome to get to it.

It turned out wonderfully. They had a blast. And I learned a thing or two as I read their articles/contributions. :-)

Friday, November 24, 2006

What IS Professionalism?

As a professor and IT professional, I've encountered various positions/preferences regarding the subject of professionalism.

I'll discuss some of my experiences and musings on What is professionalism? in a series of future posts.

However, I wanted to share a little something, which I saw over at
Despite patient preference and other compelling reasons for dressing up, author Erin Marcus, an assistant professor at the University of Miami's medical school, claims that more and more young doctors are slumming it at work. "Among older and middle-aged physicians (like myself), tales of salacious and sloppy trainee attire abound," Marcus observes. "One Midwestern medical school dean reported that her school instituted a formal dress policy after administrators noticed students revealing too much flesh while sunbathing on a small patch of grass outside the school building, directly below patients’ hospital room windows."

This article focuses on the medical field, but I think there's a simmering tension in the broader business community over workplace attire.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Happy Turkey Day

I just wanted to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving.

I'll be back on Friday 11/24.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Universities Becoming Less Accessible

There is a new report from The Education Trust: Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation's Premier Public Universities (click to download the full report).

Included in the report is damning evidence of practices which betray the heart of how I and Richard Florida (as seen in my earlier post) view the mission of higher education.

As Kati Haycock, director of The Education Trust, noted in a conversation with The Chronicle of Higher Education:

"In an attempt to purchase more and more prestige, universities are ... turning their backs" on low-income and minority students...

For example, she noted, from 1995 to 2003, public flagships and other research-extensive universities increased institutional grant aid per student more for those from families in upper-income brackets than for those in lower-income brackets. Over that period, such aid rose by 29 percent for students from families making less than $20,000 a year, but grew by more than 186 percent for students with family incomes of $100,000 or more.

When the "Virtual" Gets Dropped from Virtual Reality

Man's Best Buddy

Monday, November 20, 2006

Richard Florida Podcast

If you're interested in hearing a presentation by Richard Florida (from the Pop!Tech 2004 Conference) on his research into creative economies, you can listen to it here:

Richard Florida on the Creative Class

Talent vs. Human Capital: Is There a Difference?

There's an interesting post over at Richard Florida's blog, The Creativity Exchange.

Advanced institutions of higher education, when considered in the context of talent/human capital, are not only prerequisites for a healthy economy, but are essential for liberation and empowerment.

In my view, the supply of talent is virtually limitless--limited only by the number of humans and our human abilities.

Right now, my rather crude guesstimate is that we are tapping but a small fraction of total human ability. If, say 35 percent of the workforce in the advanced countries work in creative occupations, a safe guess is that we are tapping at most 10 percent of total human ability. That means there is at minimum 90 percent out there to harness and utilize.

So the real key is how to do that: How to harness this incredible unused reservoir of human ability in ways that can power economic gain, fuel rising living standards across the board, improve human happiness and make the world a better place generally. This, as I've said before, is exactly what Toyota did in moving beyond fordism by integrating workers' knowledge and intelligence as a source of continuous innovation on the factory floor, in effect transforming the factory itself into a living laboratory.

This, I have argued, is also the next great frontier of competitive advantage...

You can read Richard Florida's full post here.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Rise of America's New Class System

Here is an excellent piece by Jim Webb, in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. Whether or not you agree with him, it's an enlightening--and disturbing--read.

The most important -- and unfortunately the least debated -- issue in politics today is our society's steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century. ... It is not unfair to say that they are literally living in a different country. Few among them send their children to public schools...

Some shrug off large-scale economic and social dislocations as the inevitable byproducts of the "rough road of capitalism." Others claim that it's the fault of the worker or the public education system, that the average American is simply not up to the international challenge, that our education system fails us, or that our workers have become spoiled by old notions of corporate paternalism...

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bill Gates on Education

For some time now, Bill Gates (of Microsoft) has put the immense resources of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to work in a series of attempts to reform America's public education system.

Mr. Gates was recently interviewed by the Associated Press:

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates said Monday that the U.S. higher education system is the envy of the world but primary and secondary schools are failing to adequately prepare students for college. ... He said the U.S. education system needs higher standards, clear accountability, flexible personnel practices and innovation.

You can read the full story here.

Nothing new there--calls for accountability, higher standards, etc. However, what is noteworthy is the fact that his foundation has the necessary financial means to actually make a difference.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Widespread Instability in Iraq Hinders Students

I heard this interview on NPR today, and felt that it was important to share.

However you may feel about the state of higher education in your country/state/city, you can count yourself lucky...

As you probably know by now, Iraq's Ministry of Higher Education was forced to cancel all classes until further notice, due to the mass kidnapping of roughly 100 academics today.

The gunmen went through a secured government building, separating the men from the women. They locked the women in various rooms, and took the men away--to an unknown fate.

The gunmen were dressed in police uniforms, and were waved through the security checkpoints...

The academic community of Iraq is largely in flight from the country, just at the time when their expertise is needed most.

Melissa Block talks with Omar al-Farouk al-Damluji, professor emeritus of civil engineering at Baghdad University, and former Minister of Construction and Housing, about the poor security situation at universities and elsewhere in Iraq, as well as the brain drain.

Al-Damluji says many students cannot attend classes due to lack of security at their schools and in their neighborhoods, and that some classes are being taught by post-doctorate students.

You can listen to the story from NPR--here.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Guest Article: Helicopter Parents and Needy Students

Today's Guest Post is from John M.:

Are you:

In constant contact with your child?
In constant contact with school administrators?
Making your child's academic decisions?
Feel bad about yourself when your child does not do well?

This is part of a self-test published by the College Board to see if you are a helicopter parent. There have been a bunch of articles in papers across the country about helicopter parents, those parents that attempt to swoop in and solve all their children's problems for them. If you trace back the trend you see it creep through the educational system. The first folks to talk about the phenomenon were elementary ed folks, then hs teachers, now mostly college professors and administrators.

One recent article describes helicopter parents in the following way:
They saw their youngsters as "special," and they sheltered them. Parents outfitted their cars with Baby on Board stickers. They insisted their children wear bicycle helmets, knee pads and elbow guards. They scheduled children's every hour with organized extracurricular activities. They led the PTA and developed best-friend-like relationships with their children. Today, they keep in constant touch with their offspring via e-mail and cell phones. And when their children go off to college, parents stay just as involved.

Now, even employers are feeling the swinging blades of these folks. As reported by
Some parents are writing their college-age kids' resumes. Others are acting as their children's "representatives," hounding college career counselors, showing up at job fairs and sometimes going as far as calling employers to ask why their son or daughter didn't get a job.

It's the next phase in helicopter parenting, a term coined for those who have hovered over their children's lives from kindergarten to college. Now they are inserting themselves into their kids' job search -- and school officials and employers say it's a problem that may be hampering some young people's careers.

"It has now reached epidemic proportions," says Michael Ellis, director of career and life education at Delaware Valley College, a small, private school in Doylestown, Pa. At the school's annual job fair last year, he says, one father accompanied his daughter, handed out her resume and answered most of the questions the recruiters were asking the young woman. Even more often, he receives calls from parents, only to find out later that their soon-to-be college grad was sitting next to the parent, quietly listening.

Jobs counselors at universities across the country say experiences like those are now commonplace.

This really serves to make colleges look very poor, I think. If they do not do a better job of weaning students away from their parents, they are doing them a great disservice. How to do this is very compicated though. Many of the students surveyed in these articles are thankful that their parents are taking care of these things for them; they do not see it as problematic. Neither do the parents. Colleges need to come together to decide on the developmental goals they would like for their students to achieve while at their institutions and find ways to communicate to parents how their hovering is preventing these goals from being reached. I believe that these folks really do want to help their kids. We need to show them that sometimes by helping, they are doing harm.

Do others have thoughts on this topic? Ideas on how to address it?

Copyright 2006, John M.
  • More articles by John M.
  • Friday, November 10, 2006

    Are You at a 2.0 Campus?

    The folks over at IntelliGrad have started a ranking of the most tech-savvy campuses.

    They've begun assessing/ranking colleges based on a number of factors:
    After doing some research IntelliGrad has arrived at what we believe to be the first 2.0 Campus Rankings. We base these results on numerous factors including: innovation of alumni, innovative use of technology in teaching, school size, school location, entrepreneurship/web-related course offerings, “wiredness,” endowment and number of students, student voice/engagement.

    It's an interesting list, and well worth a look. The list is the first of its kind (that I'm aware of) and I'm sure we'll see a more in-depth ranking soon--perhaps from the likes of The Princeton Review.

    Thursday, November 09, 2006

    Record Numbers of Students Taking College Courses Online

    It would seem that the future is upon us, in academe. The numbers of higher ed students taking at least one course in an online format has risen to a new astonishing high (up from a previous record high).

    Some questions that immediately come to mind are:
    What are we (academics and administrators) going to do about this growing trend?
    What are the challenges these teachers and students face?

    Roughly one in six students enrolled in higher education — about 3.2 million people — took at least one online course last fall, a sharp increase defying predictions that online learning growth is leveling off.

    A new report scheduled for released Thursday by The Sloan Consortium, a group of colleges pursuing online programs, estimates that 850,000 more students took online courses in the fall of 2005 than the year before, an increase of nearly 40 percent. Last year, the group had reported slowing growth, prompting speculation the trend had hit a ceiling.

    "The growth was phenomenal," said Jeff Seaman, Sloan's CIO and survey director, who also serves as co-director of the Babson College survey research group. "It's higher in absolute numbers and higher in percentages than anything we've measured before. And it's across the board," at schools ranging from doctoral institutions to those offering associate's degrees to for-profit colleges....

    You can read the full story here.
    You can see the full Sloan report here.

    Invisible Universities: Is There Room for Elitism Among Scholars?

    Dr. Reid Cornwell has posted another gem for thought.

    After reading it, I wondered: If, as I've seen elsewhere, online spaces (such as Wikipedia) have a de-professionalizing effect, is there room for elitism online?

    In writing about scholarly networks in Netspace, Barry Wellman, Emanuel Koku, and Jeremy Hunsinger have described such groups as Invisible Universities. We accept their opinion as both personal and professional.

    Invisible colleges provide forums for sharing, disseminating, and testing new ideas, as well as for exchanging information about teaching, research, funding opportunities, academic bureaucracies, and personal situations. They promote scholarly identity and purpose and stimulate discussion of theory, methods, and findings. Ideas get transmitted more quickly and innovatively than in formal journals constrained by publication lags and orthodoxy promoting refereeing, though this too is changing in the online era. Typically, they contain:

    * a core group of elite scholars
    * a high degree of communication through formal (conferences, papers) and informal channels among members
    * frequent communication between prominent core scholars and subsets of less prominent, non-core scholars
    * interactions among core members and their adherents hold the invisible college together
    * contacts between members of invisible colleges and outsiders enable mutual exchange of information

    You can read his full post here.

    Wednesday, November 08, 2006

    "What we teach" vs. "What they actually need"

    I found this instructional graphic over at Preoccupations yesterday. It's a perfect example of what I'm struggling against on a daily basis in my classes.

    I teach at an engineering college, and am trying to share creative values with my students.

    In general, our freshmen are very bright and hard working. They're a wonderful group, and I don't think I'd be happy teaching anywhere else. However, their previous educational experiences have largely ignored the spectrum of skills/knowledge in "What they actually need."

    I do what I can to rectify this...

    Tuesday, November 07, 2006

    "Let's have tomorrow's meeting on the Wiki."

    Teachers and students can already get free wiki-spaces (the same software that powers Wikipedia) over at, but for some, this may not be the right option.

    Many schools, and corporations, have compelling reasons to create their own wikis, and other social networks (for instance, IBM is using social networking to help fuel creativity in their R&D labs). These groups may need spaces which are totally customized to their needs, with their own graphics, logos, links, layout, etc.

    The same qualities which make social netwroking a goldmine for educators--i.e., its facilitation of collaborative learning and group activities, its "always on" nature, its culture of sharing and free thought, etc.--make social networking an exciting tool to energize Research and Development throughout the business and academic communities.

    Here are a few interesting perspectives on social networking's value in creative business endeavors:

  • Intel unveils 'Web 2.0' software suite

  • Web 2.0 a catalyst in Oracle's Fusion

  • 'Office 2.0' startups knock on business doors
  • Monday, November 06, 2006

    New Technologies Starting to Rattle Online Self-Expression

    "New technologies are starting to rattle the foundations of online self-expression," Hyman writes in his own mog. "Coupling these tools with technology to help you find people who share similar tastes will usher in a new wave of relationship building.... New communities will flourish and become the most powerful means of discovering what we want to consume." (Read the full article here.)

    Interesting! Certianly, sites like Blogger, Web Biographies, Gather and others are making a stong impact in the arts. These new technologies--these creative communities--can definitely be adapted to educational use.

    The "Information Age" is over...

    A few wise words from John Moravec, over at (you can read the full post here):

    We are now in the Knowledge Age, maximizing what we know from information and new knowledge production; and, we are swiftly moving toward an age focused on the innovative and new contextual use of knowledge. Of course, 19th Century production line models of education need to be replaced. Human beings in knowledge and innovation societies cannot be educated as automatons with “download” forms of knowledge. They need to embraced and cultivated as creatives.

    Thursday, November 02, 2006

    Foreign Workers Help Keep High Tech in America

    Earlier this week, I spoke with the Director of a local R&D lab.

    He told me that this year, he had openings for 3 positions. He spent months searching for native-born PhDs (engineers) to fill the positions, but to no avail. He couldn't find one. Eventually, he was forced to take his employment search abroad, and help secure H1B visas for foreign workers.

    This is a common concern, and last September, the National Academy of Engineering published a report on the essential role foreign-born skilled workers play in the US. Simply put, the US doesn't graduate enough science and engineering PhDs per year to maintain the R&D that is necessary to fuel a healthy economy and society.

    Younger Employees Lack Basic Skills

    I just found an interesting article over at (a publication focused on the various issues facing the small business and entrepreneurial communities).

    Time and time again, I encounter similar complaints from the business community about recent high school and college grads. We (that is, academics) are placing perhaps too much emphasis on exclusive professionalization--at a time when the workplace requires more generalization and interdisciplinarity.

    As I've said before, the business community needs students who can work collaboratively and creatively--with superior communications skills (written, and verbal).

    A new survey of employers finds that recent high school and college graduates fall short in a number of areas...

    An overwhelming majority cited problems new hires had handling such routine tasks as writing memos, letters, and other reports, the survey found...

    In September, just over half of the nation's small businesses hired or tried to hire at least one new employee, based on a monthly survey by the National Federation of Independent Business, a Washington-based lobby group.

    Of those with positions to fill, more than 80 percent of small-business owners reported finding few or no qualified applications, with as many as 12 percent citing a lack of qualified employees as their biggest business problem -- the highest number in five years, the group said...

    You can read the full article here.

    Changing Needs and Expectations

    When promoting creativity at the workplace, or in the classroom, it is generally a good idea to have as thorough an understanding of one’s employees, or students, as possible.

    Both academe and the private sector are facing a new generation of students/graduates—a demographic much unlike those that have come before.

    When scholars and commentators refer to the millions of “tech-savvy” members of generations X & Y, no one is implying, as far as I can gather, that there are suddenly 100,000,000 computer programmers in our midst. However, the last two generations do a wonderful job of using the tech skills they already have, in order to navigate new technologies as they are encountered. And while I use “their,” this includes me, as I’ve been an avid “geek” since the early 1990s. (My first Internet experiences were via Gopher and Mosaic—and that definitely dates me.)

    With a little research, there is plenty of hard data to back up the general tech-familiarity of the under-30 demo, as well as their changing work habits and lifestyles. But the main issue professors and teachers ought to address is that our students’ needs are changing, and that this cultural shift includes the work habits and expectations of many recent graduate students.
    In academe, we all too often forget that in the end, we are teachers. And as such, our primary duty is to educate and prepare our students for what they will meet/need after they’ve left our classrooms.

    If we listen to the business community, we hear a steady call for students who are prepared to work collaboratively, and think critically—as well as creatively.

    Certainly, academe has always moved at the proverbial snail’s pace, and change has never come without hundreds of man-hours spent in committee, etc. to study cost/benefit analyses, etc. Inevitably, there will also be the persons of privilege, who perceive any change as threatening—or at the least, a softening of the “standards.”

    Wednesday, November 01, 2006

    New Challenges: Managing and Teaching Gen X and Gen Y (the Millenials)

    Young people use technology like no previous generation. Unwired's Richard Leyland explains what to expect from them in the workplace and how to adapt your business to take advantage of their strengths.

    You've seen them hunched over a PC, performing bewildering tasks at breakneck speed. You've watched with suspicion as they created an online community of friends, blurring the boundaries between 'real' friends and those they may never meet.
    You took note when MySpace, their chief playground, was sold to Rupert Murdoch for about half a billion dollars.

    Now the killer - today's tech-savvy young people are the office and boardroom faces of tomorrow. We need to understand them and change, if we're to create an environment where they can thrive.

    So here's what I know about them...

    You can read the full article here.